Robin Blakeman (center, with her mother and daughter) is an ordained PCUSA Teaching Elder, a mother, and an 8th Generation West Virginia Resident. She is currently employed by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and does volunteer work within the Presbytery of West Virginia. She is also a member of the steering committee for the newly formed WV Chapter of Interfaith Power and Light.
There’s a story in my family about my Great-Grandfather, Silas M. “Bud” Javins, that goes something like this: Sometime (in the late 1800’s) after building his own sawmill and house on a piece of Boone County, WV land he owned (which had been in the family since the late 1700’s), he encountered “Rockefeller agents” who wanted to buy his mineral rights. He didn’t want to sell and tried to tell them politely to leave, but they wouldn’t listen, so the dialogue got rather heated. The legend goes that he actually had to chase those land grabbing agents off his property with a gun!
This story illustrates how hard working entrepreneurial Central Appalachians were challenged with increasing levels of force to give up their land and/or mineral rights. Many sold out for the much needed cash they were being offered, not really understanding what they were signing. Some shady dealings were happening, too – several county court houses in southern WV suffered mysterious fires during that era, and land records were destroyed or altered subsequently. I’m one of the lucky ones who still has my family land – the very farm where my great-grandfather built a house and a sawmill – and some of our mineral rights intact. I am very aware, however, that it was during that post-civil war early industrial period when West Virginia (a state forged out of the Civil War) and much of Central Appalachia became essentially a resource colony for the rest of the nation, and has been exploited ever since.
Fast forward to today where current statistics tell us these facts: West Virginia has a county (McDowell) that is both a major exporter of coal AND has the lowest lifespan for its adult residents. A woman of childbearing age can anticipate that her unborn baby will have a 40% greater likelihood of developing a serious birth defect if she lives near a mountaintop removal coal mining operation. Many of our retired, disabled and deceased miners and their families now struggle with the fact their health, retirement, disability and survivor benefits are being terminated due to bankruptcy agreements that allow corporate executives to retain their salaries & benefits, and the miners lose all their promised benefits. Yet, our state’s elected leaders continue to speak with near unanimous voice about the need to “protect coal."
What I can see, from my perspective as both an 8th generation WV resident, and with a faith-filled and social justice informed reader of current events, is that this is at the very least a foolish allegiance to an industry which is soon going to be just as by-gone as the horse-drawn buggy makers of the past. At worst, there is a form of idolatry on the loose in the voices of those who claim that we must protect our “coal jobs” at all cost, when – in fact – the coal industry has been in a labor reduction mode since the mid part of the twentieth century, when mechanization of mining practices became widespread, increasing in size and capacity up to the modern “drag line” that literally rips mountains apart at their seams in the process of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Now, there are much bigger things at stake than just my (or anyone else’s) family farm. There is the fact that the headwaters of much of the East coast’s watersheds are at risk from mountaintop removal coal mining and gas fracking – which is becoming very widespread in Central Appalachia. This is the location of headwater streams for the Ohio, the Potomac, the James Rivers, and many others. There are reports of dramatic and increasing signs of Climate Change, which we truly must address as quickly as possible if we want to avoid all of our coastal cities going underwater due to sea level rise. There are droughts and unbelievably high temperatures in India and other countries that are causing deaths and disease in catastrophic numbers. There are floods and wildfires on our own continent that we can no longer ignore. There is increasing melt of glaciers, permafrost and polar ice caps.
The central question for me is this: what kind of world do I want to leave to my daughter and her descendants?
In answering that question, I am aware of both the global problems of Climate Change, and of shortfalls to my state’s budget due to loss of coal revenues – all of which may impact her job prospects when she graduates next year from college. For her sake and for the sake of her yet-to-be-conceived or adopted children, I am aware of how urgently we need to develop alternative economic industry and truly renewable energy resources in order to fill in those budget gaps (some would say we need to focus on “preserving coal” but I strongly disagree). To spur this kind of development, we need a message about the morality and justice of continued economic dependence on fossil fuel resources, and we need it loudly and rapidly delivered, even though there will be opposition to that message.
The thing that gives me the most hope is that there are some nearby job training programs that are actively training solar installers. This is a growing industry in West Virginia! If we can do this here, it can be done anywhere.
My hope is this: instead of squashing entrepreneurial initiatives (as was done in the past in West Virginia), that Wisdom will prevail and programs like Coalfield Development (http://www.coalfield-development.org/) and Solar Holler (http://www.solarholler.com/) will become the model for increasing diversification of our workforce and energy generation. We need messages sent to our elected leaders and energy providers about the critical need to transition away from dependence on fossil fuels. To help this transition happen, I have supported the work of Fossil Free PCUSA for the past three years. The work being done on the divestment front is another bright and shining beacon of hope – not only for Central Appalachia, but for our entire world.